At US Embassy, Afgan staff endures
By Patrick Healy and Robert Schlesinger, Boston Globe (Nov 30, 2001)
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan opposition forces, including Northern Alliance troops, closed in yesterday around Kandahar in the south, the last city under Taliban control.
American warplanes continued their intense bombing raids, US Marines deployed additional ground troops, and Taliban soldiers dug themselves in at the urging of their spiritual leader - all signs that the city might soon be the site of a final, ferocious battle to defeat the Taliban militia.
Northern Alliance units, working in coordination with US special operations forces and heavy bombing from American jets, continued their move toward Kandahar, marking the first push into southern Afghanistan since the US air raids began.
Witnesses who escaped the city and headed toward the Pakistani border described heavy bombing around Kandahar over the past two days. The Taliban there reportedly hanged an Afghan man after accusing him of helping Americans call in airstrikes.
The situation in Kandahar remained unclear, however. Commanders made differing and at times contradictory claims.
In Washington, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said the Pentagon could not report on whether anti-Taliban fighters had entered Kandahar. He said that Northern Alliance troops might be in the same province as the city, but that the province covers a large area of southern Afghanistan. He also said any such approach was ''not in a large movement.''
A Northern Alliance commander in Kabul said troops would make a ''big push'' shortly against Kandahar, in tandem with the ongoing US airstrikes there. But he said anti-Taliban forces were not yet on the verge of capturing the city.
''We are making a strong fight in the south,'' said the commander, who spoke by telephone from the Defense Ministry here, and would identify himself only as leader of 300 soldiers. ''We will have victory there.''
The coordination between Northern Alliance troops and US special forces could signal a repeat of tactics used to great effect in the north of combining American air power with Northern Alliance ground forces.
And the movement of Northern Alliance troops into the southern part of the country raises questions about the country's political future as negotiators in Bonn try to work out that arrangement.
Loyal Taliban and Al Qaeda troops remained in their Kandahar positions, urged by their leader, Mullah Muhammed Omar, to fight and defend the ousted regime's spiritual center.
Omar is believed to be among those holed up in the city after apparently escaping US strikes against Taliban leaders earlier this week.
In northern Afghanistan, which is now mostly under control of the US-backed Northern Alliance, inspection teams examined airfields for possible expansion of humanitarian aid efforts. US officials continued to survey and repair the airports near the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Bagram, where small elements from the 10th mountain division are stationed.
In neighboring Uzbekistan, meanwhile, a soldier with the US Army's 10th Mountain Division died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Washington Post reported, citing US defense officials. The Pentagon, which withheld the soldier's name pending notification of relatives, had said in a three-sentence announcement that ''his death was not the result of enemy action.''
The soldier was the sixth American to die in and around Afghanistan since the war began Oct. 7. His death was under investigation, officials said.
The focus of the day's events, however, remained around Kandahar, where anti-Taliban forces apeared on the verge of mounting an assault, and on the area around the eastern city of Jalalabad, where suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden may be in hiding.
A senior administration official said ''large numbers'' of Northern Alliance troops were closing in on Kandahar and an area west of Jalalabad to ratchet up pressure on some remaining pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Northern Alliance soldiers were working in tandem with US special operation forces on the ground.
''We're now seeing large numbers of the Northern Alliance moving in both areas, especially west of Jalalabad,'' the official said.
With control of most of the country, and government formation talks progressing in Germany, the Northern Alliance was laying the groundwork for a post-Taliban Afghanistan.
''We are working with all the shuras,'' or local Muslim councils, to build a unity government, said the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban aside, ''there are no other conflicts between us and other groups in Afghanistan.''
It has been difficult to verify the wildly differing accounts about Kandahar. News reports yesterday quoted the Northern Alliance's deputy defense minister, Bismallah Khan, saying that alliance troops had entered Kandahar. That report was later denied.
Word also circulated that Ismail Khan, a former mujahideen leader who last month wrested Herat province in western Afghanistan from the Taliban, had marched into Kandahar. Shortly after those reports, his spokesman told Reuters that his forces had not even left Herat.
A military commander for a former Kandahar governor claimed to be within a few miles of the city and ready to march in and take over within days. Yusaf Pashtoon, who is fighting alongside former governor Gul Agha Sherzai, said 2,500 men were firmly in control of the road in Takhta Pol, a town south of Kandahar, and ready to forge ahead.
But numerous Kandahar residents who fled to the border crossing in Chaman, Pakistan, yesterday said the Taliban were still firmly in control, and had regained the Takhta Pol road from Sherzai's forces, reestablishing their key supply road from Kandahar to the Pakistani border.
The determination of the Taliban's forces to stand their ground and fight in Kandahar was illustrated by the reported public execution of an Afghan accused of spying for the United States.
The man's corpse was left hanging at Martyr's Crossing, a major intersection, as an example to others, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
On Sunday, the Taliban said they arrested four men suspected of spying for the United States; the man hanged yesterday is believed to be one of them. The Taliban said he was calling in US airstrike targets from a satellite telephone.
Seeking to rally his followers, Omar urged his commanders in a radio message to defend their dwindling territory.
''The fight has now begun. It is the best opportunity to achieve martyrdom,'' a Taliban official quoted Omar as saying. ''Now we have the opportunity to fight against the infidels,'' meaning non-Muslims.
Meanwhile, a Taliban security official reported the release of a Canadian freelance journalist working for the weekly Montreal Mirror who was reportedly seized by unknown assailants a few days ago when he ventured 50 yards over the border at Chaman into Waish, Afghanistan. But a Pakistani official told the Associated Press that 33-year-old Ken Hechtman was still being held.
Healy reported from Kabul, Schlesinger from Washington. Globe Staff reporter Indira A.R. Lakshmanan contributed from Chaman, Pakistan, and John Donnelly from Islamabad. Material from wire services was also used.
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